R. Ashwin and Axar Patel were the two sorcerers with the ball against England in India earlier this year. Their magic spectacularly obliterated the visiting team in three out of four Tests. Ashwin, of course, simply justified his reputation as the best contemporary spinner in Test cricket; Axar, on the other hand, signalled he had come of age, three years after having shown enough promise to be given a run with the Indian team.
Axar made his Test debut in the second Test in Chennai and immediately made an impact, taking seven wickets in India’s comprehensive win. He went on to bag 11 wickets at the Narendra Modi stadium in his home state of Gujarat with the pink ball, and then nine more wickets at the same venue, in the third Test. He had broken the record for most wickets by a bowler (Ajantha Mendis had 26 scalps against India in 2008) in a debut series of three Tests.
He had arrived here on the back of two good seasons with Delhi Capitals, in 2019 and 2020, after having fallen off the radar a bit in the IPL. He continued to impress in 2021, registering an economy rate of under 7 for the second year in a row to help the Capitals reach the playoffs.
In an interaction with Sportstar , Axar reflects on the eventful year, explains why the Capitals have been performing well in the last few seasons, and looks ahead to the upcoming Test series against New Zealand.
You made your Test debut and had a good season with Delhi Capitals. Also had to self-isolate due to COVID-19 in the middle of the IPL in India. Your thoughts on the year so far.
It’s been a very good year for me. Made my Test debut and I have been playing for India and performing well consistently, so this year has been one of the best years I’ve had. In the IPL, I got back in the same rhythm that I had before I got the COVID-19 infection, and continued to play. Overall, it was eventful and I had a lot of fun this year.
How's it been like at the Capitals and does Ricky Ponting bring the best out of the players?
I’m happy at Delhi Capitals. By the time I went to the Capitals, I had already played for the Indian team. I was close friends with Prithvi Shaw, Rishabh Pant and Shikhar Dhawan; we bonded well with each other and it created a good atmosphere. That was one of the reasons we understood each other well, and it was reflected in our performances for the club. If we are clear about what our roles are, it is great.
I’ve enjoyed the three years at Capitals. Not for one moment did I feel bored. A team performs well only if all members of the team go in sync with each other and enjoy each other’s success. And that is a trait we have at Capitals. We enjoy each other’s success; when we lose, we lose together, and when we win, we win together. If we lose, we stay together; after the match, we always have a get-together. We don’t fret after losses, just discuss what we can improve upon and be ready for the next day.
This became our culture, and it continued for three years. No one talks negatively behind their backs about other people. Ricky Ponting gets the credit for this. The way he carries the team along with him, he treats everyone as equal and manages us well. There are no segregations of players based on categories such as international players, IPL players and domestic players. The positive atmosphere developed under Ponting at Capitals.
And your thoughts on the fellow spinners in your team - Amit Mishra and R. Ashwin. Ashwin, like you, is a finger spinner. Has your game improved with his presence and advice?
Ashwin and I are different types of bowlers, and wrist-spinner Mishy bhai is different as well. Physically we don’t compare our bowling with each other. Our roles and styles are different. Ashwin gives the ball a bit of flight, I like to deliver it fast. But when we practice, we discuss strategies and game plans, or basically, hone the mindset required for success. The mindset to bowl is what I’ve learnt from them – how to bowl in a given situation, etc.
Your thoughts on the Capitals' overall performance in the last two seasons under Ponting.
The atmosphere and culture cultivated by Ponting and the fact that some of us were of the same age and bonded well played a role in the team’s good performance over a period of three years. Also, there were new players as well as experienced players in the team – a good mix of youth and experience - so that helped, too. And we knew each other’s role as well, we were united and enjoyed each other’s success. All this helped us succeed.
Regarding the Test series against England in India. You took a bucketful of wickets in all the games but the 11 wicket-haul in front of your home crowd in the day-night Test would have especially pleased you. Your thoughts on that Test match and does it rank as the best moment of your cricketing career?
The best moment would be the Test cap that I got, on February 13. The pink-ball Test would come a close second – in front of my home crowd, I got the most number of wickets. And I got wickets on the first ball in both innings. There are many memorable moments from that game, even some small details. For three years I was not playing for the team, but I trained myself well so that I could perform well when I got the opportunity. The pink ball was also helping me I thought; it was a bit shiny so it was skidding on after pitching. Many things were going in my favour.
Your thoughts on India's chances in the upcoming Test series against New Zealand?
I will try to perform as well as I’d done during the Test series at home against England. It will be a good series against New Zealand. They perform better in seaming conditions than in pitches favouring spin. That will be challenging for them; we have the home advantage. At the same time, they’re playing really well in both red-ball and white-ball formats – they defeated us in the World Test Championship final – and therefore we can’t take them lightly. We have to be ready with our plans.
Do you think the Indian Test team is going through a golden phase at the moment?
I think this Indian team is quite bold. Whenever a decision is taken, the team doesn’t hold back in trying to implement it to the full. There used to be a perception that we don’t perform well in green pitches and do better at home on spinning tracks, but this Indian team has changed these perceptions. The team has the confidence now to do well in all conditions, and if we lose, we’re not going to offer excuses. A culture has developed in recent years within this Indian team. It is important for a team to continue to be aggressive for all the 90 overs in the day.
New players don’t offer excuses and always try to get themselves ahead in whatever situation they find themselves in. No one is despondent, everyone’s confident. And it shows, too: there is a new hero emerging in every series we play and it’s not as if only one player is performing well over a period of time. It’s because of a team effort in every series that we’re doing well.
What was the message by the captain and the coach after India lost to England in Chennai, in the first Test?
I was going to play the first Test but I developed a small niggle and didn’t play as per advice by the physio. When we lost, we didn’t dwell on that loss, as we hadn’t done when we lost the first Test in Australia (Adelaide Test, 2020-21). We need to back our cricket; we lost because we didn’t execute our plans well. Just move on and start afresh. We’ll see whatever happens but if we start to brood over our loss, we will feel more pressurised going into the next game. So the idea is to play normally and take whatever we get.
In modern-day cricket, how easy or difficult is it to switch between formats and between red and white-ball cricket? Is it more a change of mindset, or does it also involve physical preparations and the honing of technique?
All three of these play a role. T20 cricket is less about technique than other formats; you hardly play seven-eight deliveries sometimes and the ball doesn’t even swing much. But if you go on to red-ball cricket, you know you will have to play out the day; if your technique isn’t sound, you may chase a wide delivery or drive and lose your wicket. So, there you have to hone your technique.
Mental readiness, however, is a requisite for all formats.
For all three formats, you need to be physically, mentally, and technically ready. But perhaps, there is more space to hide in white-ball cricket if you’re technically weak. But even so, without the expertise, it’s not possible to continue to perform consistently for a number of matches.
It’s quite difficult for a player to switch from red ball to white-ball cricket and vice versa. It’s more difficult to get into red-ball mode after playing white-ball cricket. It’s tough, but the better you can train your mind to accept the challenge rather than fear what lies ahead, the better for you.
Finally, you've been around in the domestic circuit for a number of years now. Can you reflect on the legacy left behind by Parthiv Patel, under whom Gujarat won the Ranji Trophy in 2016-17 and finished in the top four the last time, in 2019-20?
In the olden days, Gujarat used to be the punching bag in West Zone; any team could win against Gujarat. Since Parthiv came and handled the team, the team has changed. A new culture was created by him. When we came in, we were already developing the confidence and the mentality to fight. It took many years to develop the culture and the mentality to succeed, and now we have a team that is tough and hungry for success; Parthiv was the one who helped get us here. I don’t think anyone will be able to do what he’s done for the Gujarat team. Our task is to create as a team as good as the one Parthiv had given us.
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